Friday, November 4, 2016

Memory Work ( or "How I Once was Lost But Now am Found")

The other day one of my big kids quizzed me, "Mom, what's the capital of Oregon?"  

I was silent and then, "Ummmm..."   I didn't know.  

James was passing nearby and I heard him say in a singsong voice, "Salem, Oregon!"  

James is not yet three ;)  

Scenes like this are rather common around here.  Geography songs are the memory work du jour.  They are nearly all we listen to in the car, and if we're all home it's a good bet that someone is somewhere humming the countries of Equatorial Africa, or the state capitals on the eastern border of the US, or some other such nerdy song.  During "school" time, the bigger kids are practicing map identification while they sing.  In addition to geography lists and map work, we also incorporate memorization into other lessons - math, Latin, grammar, and poetry.  

If you had asked my opinion on the importance of memorization back when I had just started homeschooling, I would have scoffed at the idea.  I would have said, "What a dreary way to spend learning time.  I want my children to be immersed in interesting ideas, beautiful art and literature, I want them to experience things, and I want their horizons to broaden and their imaginations to soar.  I do not want them to be bogged down with the dreary work of memorization.  I don't want them to lose their joy in learning with the drudgery of rote practice and recitations."

I myself do not recall having to memorize much of anything in school beyond what was necessary for an upcoming test - facts, dates, vocabulary words, etc... that were "memorized" and promptly forgotten after I aced a test.  I still do not have all of the multiplication facts up to 9 memorized (though teaching multiplication has helped me master a handful more than I knew a few years ago.)    I remember struggling to memorize the Act of Contrition when I was preparing for my First Reconciliation,  but even that was lost to me, as I had to learn another one later in life.  I recall having to memorize only one poem in all my schooling - I was a freshman in high school, and I recited something from Edgar Lee Master's Spoon River Anthology in front of the class.  I have no recollection of which poem it was, and even a brief glance through the table of contents today couldn't jog my memory.   

Having no experience with the concept of memorizing facts, lists,  charts, speeches, or poems as a student, I could not possibly anticipate that I would ever inflict that horror on my own kiddos.  But then my oldest started first grade at home while also attending tutoring at a study center that follows a Classical curriculum.  And when you're a kiddo in the "grammar" stage of a classical ed program, you memorize things.  It's what you do.

One day early in the year, Aaron's homework was "practice reciting the list of prepositions."  Wha?????  I sort of rolled my eyes, and asked him if he knew any prepositions.  You can imagine my surprise when he did.  In fact, he recited about half of the extensive list in the text book.  "How did you do that???"  He told me they went through the list two or three times a couple times a day.  Interesting...

Later that year Aaron's class was required to memorize the Gettysburg Address.  I was NOT on board.  He couldn't even read the Gettysburg Address, how was he going to recite it??  First graders should not be expected to know such things.  Well, homework is homework, and my mom ended up finding a wonderful reading of the Address on-line and put the file onto a cd for us.  It was read slowly and dramatically with beautiful music in the background.  We listened to it a few times every time we got into the car.  Within two or three weeks, Aaron had memorized the Gettysburg Address.  So had I.  And so had my six- and three-year old.    My three year old could recite the Gettysburg Address.  I was blown away.  Granted, they had very little understanding of the meaning or significance of what they were reciting, and they certainly had no idea why I would cry every time I heard it, but it was in their mental stores.    

At that point I got excited about what my kids were capable of learning.  As the years went by and they learned all the Presidents of the United States, skip counting by every number up to 10, all the states in the Union, and poems by significant poets, I was excited about all that I was learning too.  I have a master's degree in American history, and even I couldn't have listed all the Presidents in chronological order or the states in alphabetical order until my kids learned them set to catchy tunes.   (Incidentally, I'm so very grateful that I've been given the opportunity to practice memory work along side them, even this late in the game :) )  

It wasn't until Aaron was in about third grade that I began to appreciate the rationale behind the emphasis on memorization in classical education.  Memory work is not about how many useless facts and disjointed speeches, chants, and poems can be crammed into a little brain.  The purpose of classical education is to foster wisom utilizing the three (natural) phases of learning in the trivium.  The first of these is the grammar stage, in which young minds (up to about 6th grade) are remarkably capable of extensive memorization.  A grammar student memorizes all sorts of chants, songs, and sayings which provide the foundation for the other stages - the logic, or dialectic stage in which naturally argumentative early-adolescents begin to draw upon this base of knowledge to make connections and draw conclusions, and the rhetoric stage, in which students learn to dialogue and persuade by honing their speaking and writing skills.  

Memorization is so integral in the grammar stage because mastering information is more suited to the young brain than processing or using that information.  With this understanding, it's easy to see why a first or second grader would learn a list of 49 prepositions even though that child may not understand what a preposition is or how to use one yet.   The point is, is that when he does learn what it is and how to use it, he will already have a mental store of prepositions at his disposal.  Similarly, that child has the ability to  memorize and chant the first person personal pronouns in Latin even though he or she still hasn't plumbed the nuanced depths of first person personal pronouns in English. The how and why will be introduced to them later as their minds are matured and better suited to that information.  

From what I've read (and experienced in my own school experience) modern day educators tend to shy away from good ol' fashioned memorization in favor of more on-trend educational methods.  A book that I read (and loved) a few years ago addressed this.  In Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Anthony Esolen wrote, " 'We don't teach rote memorization,' say our educators today, raising their chins in pride.  'We prefer to teach critical thinking.  We prefer to tap into the imagination.' "  Sounds pretty familiar, right?
Esolen argues, however, that critical thinking and the imagination can not take shape without the "skeleton" that memorization provides the mind.  A child that doesn't have the multiplication tables at her fingertips can not hope to enjoy the puzzles of higher math.  How can an adult hope to deliver a persuasive or informative speech to fellow students, the PTA, a potential employer, or hopeful clients if he hasn't memorized and practiced any of the Great Speeches?  One who cannot identify the exact (or even general) location of a particular country on a map may miss the significance of a news item on that nation or might struggle in the future to appreciate music or food from that geographical area or culture.  A student who never memorized Jabberwocky, The Tyger, or other classics of Western poetry might be oblivious to clever literary references he encounters in college lectures, editorial columns, or even late night TV.   He may struggle to produce verses of his own without the benefit of "hearing" the vocabulary, rhythm, and language patterns of the great poets in his mind.  (I wrote a bit about the importance of poetry memorization here.)  

When applied properly, memory work in the areas of grammar, math, poetry and literature, geography, and even history, will not hinder critical thinking and imagination, but will provide a foundation for further education, exploration, understanding, and expression. 

For now, when I beg my toddler to sing to me of the countries of the former USSR, it's mostly just because it's overwhelmingly cute.  Nothing compares to hearing him say things like Tajikistan and Kyrghystan.  But when my older kids practice their poems or skip counting, when they rattle off Latin declension chants, and when they continuously review rules of using pronouns and list of prepositions, I know that they're growing their brains in an important way.   Far from dulling their minds, the skill of memorization, the discipline required to improve it, and the foundation of information they are building by doing so, have the capacity to support their educational, personal, and spiritual development into the future. I'm confident that intentional memory work is helping my kids create a mental structure that will serve and delight them (God willing!) for the rest of their livelong days.  

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Here are some links you may be interested in:

Here's a post where I talk about some of the audio resources we use for memorization:

Here are two posts about our Popcorn and Poetry Night, where kids and adults get to share poems (kids have to do it from memory ;) )


  1. A cheer from the blog reading crowd! I love memory work for my kids. Is there a source you particularly like for memorizing the presidents?

    1. Hi, Kelsey! The kids sing the last names of the Presidents to the tune of Yankee Doodle. I only found one example of the song on youtube (by typing in US Presidents yankee doodle song). When they were learning it we kept a placemat with all the Pres' on hand so we could reference it if we needed to.

  2. this is so cool! (And it explains why my 6 year old, who is in kindergarten at a classical Catholic school, has taken to reciting poems to us at the dinner table and suddenly knows how to lead a decade when we say the Rosary.)

  3. What curriculum do you use? Do you listen to geography songs in the house or car or both? What geography songs do you use? Thanks!

    1. Hi! The CD's we use are the learn what you sing "Geography Songs" and "State Capital Songs" from Kathy Troxel. We almost listen to them exclusively in the car, but we often reference the workbook that comes with them because there are some countries that we need to see the spelling to understand the pronunciation ;) We usually just listen in the car and then do the map work in the house. Hope that helps!

      (We sort of pick and choose curriculum, but the study center my kids attend follows Tapestry of Grace for history and lit.)

  4. Thanks for this - this is helpful encouragement.

    I've been thinking about how to do memory work for the past couple of weeks (I have a first grader and a pre-K student). I don't want to commit to a program like Classically Catholic Memory (either at home or with a co-op) but I do want to integrate memory work into our daily routine.

    We use Kathy Troxel for Geog and the MODG poem list for poetry.

    What do you recommend for history? Is there a program or cd with catchy tunes with significant dates in history? What do you use for the president list?

    Also do you have any suggestions for bible memorization and Catholic catechism memorization?

    I recently bought the book "Guarding Your Child;s Heart" by Malley which is Protestant and has a suggested list of verses. Can you recommend any other resources? I looked at Abeka Bible memory work but I wasn't sure it would be the right pick for us.

    Thanks, Rachael

  5. Theresa
    I just love this post, so inspiring and personally challenging ;-) Adding Memorisation back onto our to learn list. And so grateful for your audio resource link.


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